Don't forget those KSA answers just yet

By Derrick T. Dortch
Thursday, November 11, 2010; 6:52 AM

Look for federal careers expert Derrick T. Dortch's column on government jobs on the second and fourth Thursdays of every month.

I was waiting for Nov. 1 like it was Christmas.

I was hoping for the promised gift of job announcements written in plain language and applications that no longer required answers to an avalanche of essay questions simply to get a candidate considered.

But when I opened my laptop and looked onUSAJOBS, it was clear that there would be no Christmas in November - and no government-wide implementation of hiring reforms.

For all the hype about President Obama's executive order on reform, the changes are far from being fully realized. His Nov. 1 deadline has come and gone, and though some agencies have begun the reform process, too many have not.

So what does that mean for the job hunter?

It's simple: Don't get rid of your KSA (Knowledge, Skills and Abilities) and other essay question responses just yet. Since it seems we are going to have to continue to deal with those initial KSAs a while longer (the reforms do allow for KSAs further into the application process), here are some tips on writing successful responses that can help get you through that first door.

The key to good KSAs is not only being concise in your answers, but finding a way to tell the stories that prove you have the knowledge and skills to get a job done. I have seen too many KSA responses in which applicants list their duties as it relates to the question but they do not tell their own, unique story.

You have to use one of several methods when writing KSA responses. They are:

SAR: Situation, Action, Results

STAR: Situation, Task, Action, Results

CCAR: Context, Challenge, Action, Results

Each method requires you to describe a situation or challenge you faced, then show how you handled it.

You should focus on the 4 Ws and the H - the Who, What, When, Where and How. Offer details about who you were working with, and where, what tools, strategies or technology you used, what deadlines you faced, and how implementation was handled. And show the results.

Many federal agencies recommend you think about five things when developing your KSAs.

1. What action was performed?

2. Why was the action performed?

3. For whom was the action performed?

4. What were the accomplishments?

5. Did the action produce a significant impact on others or the work environment?

I tell applicants to write their KSAs as if they were in an interview. Imagine yourself sitting across from that human resources representative, recruiter or hiring manager and making your pitch. State your case with power and confidence.

It's your chance to explain exactly why you are qualified. Whether it's your extensive experience in similar jobs, your education and training, or something else that makes you uniquely the right person for the job, you've got to grab that reader.

You want your language to be lively and energetic. Use plain language, too. Simple, declarative sentences work best.

Don't be afraid to let your personality shine through either. If your passion for your work is what makes you get up in the morning, don't be shy about it. Are you a good team player, motivator or a person who is especially good under pressure? Share your attributes. And don't just have one success story in your arsenal; have two or three.

The key to good KSAs is a powerful, persuasive story that shows your technical proficiency, personality and passion.

Those KSAs aren't the most pleasant of exercises, but for now they remain an important first part of many applications. And while it's true that as you write you should imagine yourself sitting across from a person with the power to hire, the other truth is that your words on paper must stand in for you.

You've got to put some real effort into making sure those words tell your story and why you're the best hire.

Remember, federal jobs don't just drop down a chimney, neatly wrapped with a bow.

Do you have a question about the federal government's hiring process? Post it in the comments section for the Prospects column at, or e-mail Dortch at

© 2010 The Washington Post Company